Originally appeared in The Daily.
For today’s summer vacationers, the Jersey Shore presents few dangers worse than bad calzone, unwanted encounters with reality TV stars, and venereal disease. But the beach bums of yesteryear faced a danger much more terrifying, and not curable with a dose of Imodium or penicillin. It measured about 10 feet long, stalked swimmers along a 125-mile stretch of coastline, and feasted on human flesh throughout the summer of 1916. No one can be sure, but most scientists now think the culprit was one or several great white or bull sharks.
The shark’s first victim was Charles Vansant, 23, a Philadelphia textile salesman who had come to Beach Haven, N.J., with his family. Just before dinner on the first night of July, he went out to swim. He found a playmate in a local dog, a great big Chesapeake Bay retriever who waded into the water with him. Vansant called out in vain to persuade the dog to keep swimming, but the dog turned back to shore once Vansant’s feet could no longer touch bottom. Vansant then started back for the beach, getting to waist-deep water while the dog, now safely on dry land, stared back.
The first sign of danger was a black triangular fin, cutting the waves along a path straight for Vansant. Then came the screams, and then the bloom of cloudy red water around Vansant. A lifeguard and two others swam out valiantly and dragged Vansant to shore, but his left leg was mangled, and his arteries pumped out blood onto the beach. He died inside the Engleside Hotel, where his horrified family had expected to sit down to a multi-course dinner, not watch the grisly death of their own kin.
The Jersey Shore was, at first, simply in shock. But then it grew content to write off one shark attack as a freak occurrence — indeed, it was the only report of a homicidal shark up to that point in American history. America’s population was now comfortably urban, and they scoffed at the idea that one of nature’s creatures might someday eat them.
Moreover, the region was at the time beset by worries: In addition to the war raging in Europe, and the possibility of American involvement soon, the country was in the grip of an epidemic of polio, then known as infantile paralysis. Schools were shutting for fear of spreading the disease. The temperatures were mild (a high that month of just 94, a veritable arctic chill by summer 2011 standards), and a week at the beach, in open air away from potential infectors, seemed a safe bet, even if a man-eater might be lurking off the coast.
The shark’s second victim, Charles Bruder, was among those who believed the shark panic was overblown. A Swiss soldier who had emigrated to New Jersey just a few years earlier, he was a robust 27 years old and worked as a bellhop at a fancy hotel in Spring Lake, 30 miles north of Beach Haven. He had swum among sharks around Catalina Island in California, but they were sweet-tempered angel sharks. The shark he met on July 6 had a somewhat different disposition.
Bruder confidently swam about a football field’s length off the coast of Spring Lake. When the shark took its first bites, no one could hear his screams. The first person on shore to notice thought Bruder was in a red canoe that had tipped over. In fact, the spreading redness that the bystander saw was due to Bruder’s legs having been chomped clean off, one after the other. Newspaper reports said Bruder remained conscious — miraculous, if true — for a short time after rescuers pulled his body into a boat. He said the shark was big and gray, “awfully hungry,” and had clamped onto his legs and torso and shaken him “like a terrier shakes a rat.”
Two attacks made a trend. Very soon, the whole shore feared the next one, and swimmers shuddered to imagine how their dangling legs might look to a hungry great white shark. The resorts erected nets and metal structures to keep sharks away. The tourism industry, decimated by the decisions of vacationers to stay home and take a chance with polio, lobbied authorities to put bounties on the creatures.
Optimists said a third attack would never happen. They were spectacularly wrong: On July 12, an 11-year-old epileptic boy named Lester Stilwell was skinnydipping with his friends off a dock on a creek in Matawan, N.J. His friends saw something approach him that looked like a “weathered log,” and Lester went under with a scream. By the time his friends summoned help, Lester’s corpse was half-devoured. A member of the rescue squad — a burly local tailor named Stanley Fisher — was himself chewed up by the same shark while trying to retrieve the remains. Fisher punched the creature and reached the shore alive, but with his leg nearly severed. He, too, bled to death. Lester’s body, its head intact but its torso half-eaten and legs hacked apart, was found days later.
Briefly, the area was overrun by shark hunters, and President Woodrow Wilson — a former New Jersey governor — took personal interest in the shark threat. Men prowled the waters with dynamite, and according to Michael Capuzzo’s book “Close to the Shore,” some pondered dressing up dummies like young Lester and filling them with explosives.
The Jersey Shore rested a little easier two days later. A Serbian-American lion tamer named Michael Schleisser caught a young great white shark near Matawan, beating the fish to death with an oar handle after it flung itself out of the water trying to snatch him off his boat. Schleisser found human remains in the shark’s belly, and some scientists issued a judgment that they were Lester Stilwell’s.
Years afterward, however, the sight of a dorsal fin in the water was enough to send hundreds of shrieking swimmers toward dry land. Shark attacks remain rare — rarer than fatal lightning strikes, terrorist attacks, or death from eating shoddily prepared Japanese pufferfish. If you do encounter a shark, the best strategy is to swim away calmly until attacked, then claw maniacally at its eyes and gills if it bites. Those who play dead end up like Lester Stilwell.
As for the bad calzone and chlamydia, you should probably see a doctor.